What Happened to Nebraska?

WNUR’s Michael Stern (michaeljstern23) looks to Nebraska’s transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten to try to find out why the team has struggled more than expected, especially defensively.

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Trying to find a story line about this weekend’s Northwestern-Nebraska game led to watching Ndamukong Suh sacking Colt McCoy in the Big 12 title game of 2008. Naturally this led to the question, whatever happened to the vaunted Bo Pelini-resurrected Nebraska defense? The answer: they’re built for the Big 12.

Pelini’s defense is still full of recruits he sold on playing Oklahoma and Texas, so naturally the defense is built to defend against the pass, and defend against the pass it does. The Huskers were second in the Big 12 in passing defense in 2008, and tops in the league in that category in 2009 and 2010.  After a rough transition year to the Big Ten in 2011 when the Huskers finished seventh in passing defense, Nebraska led its new conference in the stat in 2012. The only problem: no one in the Big Ten wants to pass.

Big Ten offenses (other than Northwestern and Indiana) love to play smash-mouth, ground-and-pound football. Even Ohio State does this from time to time (see Hyde, Carlos). Nebraska can ground and pound themselves, thanks to Rex Burkhead in years past and Ameer Abudllah this year, but the ‘Huskers cannot stop the run. Nebraska finished eighth in the league in run defense in 2011, and tenth in the same category last year.

Another important part of defense Nebraska doesn’t do well: force turnovers. Northwestern can tell the ‘Huskers a thing or two about the importance of forcing turnovers; the ‘Cats rode the top turnover-forcing defense in the Big Ten to a 10-win 2012. Nebraska defenses built for the sack and the incomplete pass, not the fumble and interception, finished tenth in the league in turnovers forced in 2011 and sixth in the same category in 2012.

Pelini also does not have the same quality of defender that he had in the Suh-Prince Amuknamara years. Only one ‘Husker defender was drafted in April (defensive back Damion Stafford), and that was in the seventh round. After having 7 defenders named to the 2010 All Big-12 teams, Nebraska has had 6 defenders named to the 2011 and 2012 All Big-Ten teams COMBINED. No ‘Huskers were named to the 2013 preseason All Big-Ten squads.

This season has been more of the same for the Nebraska defense so far. The ‘Huskers are pretty good at passing defense (sixth in the conference), not so good at rushing defense (ninth in the conference), and not great at forcing turnovers (tied for fifth in the conference, so better than usual).

While Nebraska has won at least nine games each of the last five years, some ‘Husker faithful want coach Bo Pelini fired as he has not lived up to his promise to bring Nebraska’s defense back to prominence.

Should the ‘Huskers cut ties with Pelini, where do they turn next to get their defense back on track?

Nowhere. They get their offense on a track.

Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, the starting quarterback for Nebraska’s 1997 national championship team, might not be able to turn down an offer to coach his alma mater. His lightning-fast Oregon offense would put the rest of the Big Ten defenders on their heels, just like the Big Ten’s bruising offenses has put Nebraska’s defenders on their backsides.

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